The week that George Floyd was killed by police on May 25 in Minneapolis, R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R. was experiencing a very acute type of sadness. “I think we all were,” the Grammy winner tells Billboard, “just being very overwhelmed when social media was flooded with the video — and just knowing that there hadn’t been any kind of justice.”
She remembers feeling uninspired that final week of May, until she got on the phone with her frequent songwriting collaborator, Tiara Thomas, to discuss Floyd’s death and its greater meaning as an act of police brutality. That conversation turned into the foundation of “I Can’t Breathe,” a searing indictment of a society that refuses to change — its title could refer to the police killing of Eric Garner in 2014, or the police killing of George Floyd six years later — as well as a plea for unity. “How do we cope when we don’t love each other?,” goes H.E.R.’s favorite line in the song, which was given a raw, soulful arrangement by producer D’Mile.
Since the release of “I Can’t Breathe” last Friday (June 19), H.E.R. has received a ton of positive, and emotional, responses from fans. “A lot of people have said, ‘This was needed,’” she says. “And there’s no better feeling than feeling like your art is necessary.”
In the month since George Floyd’s death, worldwide protests have erupted against police brutality and racial injustice — and the world of popular music has been transformed in conjunction with the movement, resulting in the most pronounced period of protest songs in multiple generations. Artists across genres and demographics, from rising singer-songwriters to hip-hop A-listers, have commented on the human rights violations that have made national news over the past month, including (but not limited to) the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. And the music industry has responded in kind, with tracks like Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” making splashy Hot 100 debuts and protest songs dominating streaming playlists like Spotify’s New Music Friday and Apple Music’s New Music Daily.
“People are responding to that kind of music — it’s what they want to hear,” says Carl Chery, head of urban music at Spotify, which made its most recent New Music Friday playlist exclusively songs from Black artists in observation of the Juneteenth holiday. Chery says that hip-hop has naturally led the conversation as related to new injustices against Black Americans, but the difference between this influx of protest music and others in the recent past has been the participation of artists that don’t typically speak on social issues.
“[Modern] hip-hop has been about escapism, to a certain extent,” Chery says. “But the world doesn’t lend itself to that right now. This might not be the time to escape reality — you need to be aware of what’s going on.”
The first pronounced wave of new protest music arrived the week of June 1, during which thousands of Americans marched in cities across the country and President Trump ordered peaceful protesters in Washington D.C. to be tear gassed. That week, YG returned with “FTP,” a spiritual sequel to his 2016 anti-Trump anthem “FDT” aimed at the police; Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley teamed up with rising R&B singer Queen Naija and members of the Detroit Youth Choir for the poignant “Mr. Officer”; Run The Jewels released their new album RTJ4, recorded before George Floyd’s death but including several nods to systemic racism; and Leon Bridges unveiled “Sweeter,” a collaboration with Terrace Martin told from the perspective of a Black man taking his last breath before dying.
“A song like ‘Sweeter,’ I wrote that last year, and it’s a perpetual narrative,” says Bridges. The acclaimed singer-songwriter felt compelled to return to the Southside of Fort Worth, Texas to film a music video for “Sweeter” in the Black community where he grew up, after being “heartbroken” by recent news events. “It’s an accumulation and constant narrative of Black men dying in the hands of police,” says Bridges. “And in the past, I’ve been numb to those things, but seeing Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd was a tipping point for me. That fired me up.”
In the same week that “Sweeter” came out, country artist Mickey Guyton also released a song that she had written last year: “Black Like Me” touches upon the singer-songwriter’s first experiences with racism as a child, and how frustratingly little has changed in modern society. Guyton, one of the more prominent African-American artists in a predominantly white genre, says that “Black Like Me” — recorded and mastered last November — quickly became one of her favorite songs she had made. Yet she says that she still didn’t expect it to see the light of day.
“I would send it out to people, and people would be like, ‘I need to sit with this for a minute.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What do you need to sit with?’” Guyton recalls. “I had this song done last year, and people weren’t ready to hear it.”
As national protests continued and expanded during the week of June 8, mainstream hip-hop and R&B artists not known for addressing social issues in their music released songs that did so. DaBaby released a “Black Lives Matter remix” of his Roddy Ricch collaboration “Rockstar,” as the song (which also includes the line “f–k a cop car” in its chorus) resided at the top of the Hot 100 chart. Juicy J, best known for his club anthems as a solo artist and as part of Three 6 Mafia, released “Hella F–kin’ Trauma,” a scorching reflection on systemic racism. Anderson .Paak and Trey Songz issued powerful comments on “Lockdown” and “2020 Riots: How Many Times,” respectively, and T.I. and South African rapper Nasty C teamed up for “They Don’t,” which sends love to the “innocent mothers” who get their children taken away in police killings.
“We’re in the middle of a revolutionary time as we’re fighting against systemic injustice,” says T.I. “It was important for me to get my message out there about demanding justice for the families of the slain and accountability for the officers in our communities.”
And Lil Baby released “The Bigger Picture,” in which he empathizes with protestors and demands prolonged action to achieve progress: “It can’t change overnight,” he raps, “but we gotta start somewhere.” Lil Baby has been one of the biggest success stories in hip-hop in 2020, with his My Turn album spending three nonconsecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 chart. “The Bigger Picture” is by far the Atlanta native’s most politically charged song to date, and instead of slowing down his commercial momentum, the song debuted at No. 3 on this week’s Hot 100 chart, becoming his biggest hit yet.
Mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio has not been shy about adopting the protest anthem, either: “The audience reaction … has been very positive,” says Thea Mitchem, Executive Vice President of Programming at iHeartMedia, of “The Bigger Picture.” WWPR/Power 105.1 in New York played “The Bigger Picture” 40 times in the week ending June 21, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. “It’s a dope record,” Mitchem adds. “Lil Baby is speaking for his generation — I hope, the last generation to have to fight the battle against police brutality and discrimination.”
Previous generations of popular music included protest songs, of course: from Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” to Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” some of the most beloved songs in the pop canon have been borne of resistance and social change (and, indeed, many of these songs have surged on streaming platforms in recent weeks). This century, songs have been written to protest the Iraq War, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the killings of young Black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown Jr.; Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have become superstars while keeping the fight for social justice front and center, while Childish Gambino won record of the year and song of the year at the Grammy Awards with his emotionally charged 2018 single “This Is America.”
Yet this flood of new protest music — in which multiple singles are being released each week that comment on current events, some of the songs furious, some sad, some frustrated, many all three — represents a unique moment in mainstream music. The Ferguson protests six years ago, which also condemned police brutality against Black people, did not yield a fraction of the protest music we’re seeing today. ”I think there’s an awakening going on,” says H.E.R. “I also think, with the pandemic, we weren’t trying to listen to songs that were just a vibe, where we didn’t care about the lyrics and we just cared about the beat… people were looking for substance.”
Guyton echoes the belief that the coronavirus pandemic was “a huge factor” in both the national protests following the death of George Floyd and the influx of protest music being released. “People [have been] stuck in their homes, having nothing else to do but watch the news and seeing everything going on,” she says. “I think that this has been bubbling under the surface for a very long time.”
As protests around the United States continue, artists will likely continue to stay engaged in the movement outside of the studio as well, be it through marching, activist work or encouraging donations to social justice organizations. Artists ranging from Billie EIlish to The Weeknd to Taylor Swift have become more explicit in their political messaging over the past month; Bridges, for his part, is looking forward to participating in more on-the-ground efforts. “We’re all just trying to plan,” he says, “to think of ways to make a change in the community.”
Will artists in other genres — traditional pop, modern rock or mainstream country — join the protest music moment, too? Chery isn’t so sure, especially when it comes to protest songs coming from white artists. However, he believes that these songs could influence young Black musicians to more readily incorporate more social themes into their work, especially if they see chart-topping superstars like Lil Baby and DaBaby doing so. Labels could also be taking more chances on socially conscious artists in the near future — this month, Warner Records signed 12-year-old Keedron Bryant, who went viral with his powerful track “I Just Wanna Live,” and officially released the song as his debut single on Juneteenth.
“I wonder how this moment is going to affect the kids who are at that age where they just decided that they want to rap,” Chery says. “Maybe this moment is something that helps them figure out which direction they want to go. It’s something that’s hard to ignore.”
Just as the scale and composition of the current U.S. demonstrations is hard to predict, no one knows precisely how the evolution of this period of protest music will occur, or how long it will persist. But after issuing her own musical statement with “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R. encourages other artists who may be on the fence about recording a protest song to do the same. What she hopes is that “standing up and protesting is not a trend” intrinsic to just this moment.
“This isn’t just, ‘Okay, this year we need to march and we need to support black businesses’ — this is a marathon,” she says. “I think a lot of change is happening, and I just hope we keep the momentum, in music and in everyday life.”
(Additional reporting by Carl Lamarre, Billboard)